Fleischer Tells Truth!
Is he leaving because he's lost his touch?
Ari Fleischer will soon relinquish the post of press secretary to President Bush. Might the reason be that he was starting to tell the truth?
Fleischer was, in his prime, an energetic teller of lies on behalf of the Bush administration, responsible for no fewer than three entries in Chatterbox's "Whopper of the Week" archives. (To sample Fleischer's work, click here, here, and here; note that this last Whopper item, a doubleheader, documents two lies.) Several times, Chatterbox bypassed Fleischer howlers to avoid tedium. Recently, however, Chatterbox weakened and composed a Fleischer Whopper built around Fleischer's obviously false claim that President Bush had flown by military jet to the carrier the USS Abraham Lincoln (thereby creating a gorgeous photo op) because the Lincoln was too far offshore to accommodate travel by helicopter.
In the course of writing this Whopper, it dawned on Chatterbox that this was not a Whopper because it couldn't be demonstrated that Fleischer's statement had been false. Pondering the matter further, Chatterbox came to believe Fleischer's self-exculpating explanation for the statement was true! Chatterbox aborted his mission.
Here are the circumstances of Fleischer's pseudo-Whopper. On May 1, Fleischer described President Bush's pending visit to the Lincoln. He said Bush would be flying on a Navy S-3B Viking jet. Fleischer was asked "how far offshore" the carrier was, and whether it could be described in "hundreds" of miles. Fleischer said he didn't know, but would find out. Eventually, Fleischer told reporters that the carrier would be hundreds of miles offshore, and therefore too far to get to by Marine helicopter. That meant the picturesque flight by military jet was dictated by necessity. In the event, however, the Lincoln turned out to be a mere 30 miles off shore. This caused the White House press corps to say that Fleischer had lied, as he had so many times before.
But let's look at how Fleischer explained himself on May 6:
Q: The other question about numbers is just to set the record straight. On the visit to the aircraft carrier, I believe you told us from this podium that the reason the President had to take a jet out was because the carrier would be hundreds of miles offshore. And as it turned out, it was way, way less than that.
Fleischer: Correct. Correct.
Q: Were you misled?
Fleischer: No, the original planning was exactly as I said and when I—when I announced it, that was exactly how the plan had been anticipated. And then, the President wanted to land, exactly as I told you on the flight out there, which was the day of the trip when we knew the exact—or when we knew how close the carrier was. The President wanted to land on it, on an aircraft that would allow him to see an aircraft landing the same way that the pilots saw an aircraft landing. He wanted to see it as realistically as possible. And that's why, once the initial decision was made to fly out on the Viking, even when a helicopter option became doable, the President decided instead he wanted to still take the Viking. But, no, that was all part of the original planning.
Chatterbox doesn't see how anyone can use this to prove that Fleischer lied. Fleischer said, in essence, that circumstances had changed, and that Bush was told the costly flight by military jet could no longer be justified on the grounds of necessity. Yet Bush was so wedded to the idea of flying by jet that he more or less said, Cost be damned, I want to fly a jet. This explanation is not especially flattering to the Bush administration. It pretty much proves the press's underlying (and somewhat petty) point that taxpayer dollars were wasted so that Bush could be photographed in a flight suit. It gets Fleischer off the hook, but leaves Bush on the hook. This is precisely what a press secretary is never supposed to do. Sometimes, though, you have to, if you want to tell the truth.
A conspiracy-minded person might speculate that Fleischer created a false alibi that shifted blame to Bush because he knew he was headed out the door anyway. But assuming Fleischer wants a future in public relations, he must know that you don't improve your marketability by burning the client. The only really satisfying explanation is that Fleischer was telling the truth. The guy is obviously burnt out.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Ari Fleischer courtesy Agence France Presse.